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ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE Is a Must-See Singing, Dancing, Zombie Holiday Comedy (Review)

Imagine if Glee and Shaun of the Dead gave birth to a bouncing baby in the thick of Christmas time. That’d be the Fantastic Fest standout Anna and the Apocalypse, a teen-comedy musical/zombie holiday horror story. This might sound like one to three gimmicks to many, but in the hands of a dazzlingly talented and totally game cast led by director John McPhail, this gonzo genre mashup is extraordinarily entertaining, boasting a killer soundtrack, sparkling spirit, gruesome gore, and much, much more.

Conceived by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry (of Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat Cereal fame),  Anna and the Apocalypse follows a batch of teens in a small Scottish town as a zombie outbreak upends their cozy Christmas holiday.

Thirsting for adventure, Anna (Elia Hunt) dreams of the world beyond her boring little suburb, while her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) dreams only of her. But alas, Anna has eyes for bad boy Nick (Ben Wiggins). In the meantime, jaded aspiring journalist Steph (Sarah Swire) grabs happy-go-lucky wannabe filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux) for a project that’s sure to rile the ever-seething headmaster Savage (Game of Thrones‘s Paul Kaye), while Chris’ doe-eyed girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) is fully focused on making a big splash at the holiday talent show.

Solid teen plotlines get an added oomph from a sensational soundtrack that kicks off like High School Musical with attitude. From the moment Anna churns her angst into an ensemble jam, Anna and the Apocalypse had me hooked. One plaintive pop song kicks a whole cafeteria into a dance number as Anna and John lament that real life doesn’t get happy endings like in the movies. And so sets in the foreboding doom.

With a nod to Shaun of the Dead, Anna springs into the next morning with an oblivious jam about what a nice day it is as the world falls to pieces around her. Headphones isolate her from the mayhem spinning out around her: screaming neighbors barreling out of their homes, fecund zombies on the streets, blood splashed on the sidewalks, and billows of smoke on the horizon. 

As the teens’ new reality sets in, the songs shift from peppy pop to raging rock and wrathful punk. Nick puts his angst to use in an absolutely fantastic Freddie Mercury moment, making an electrifying anthem about slaying zombies. Even the Headmaster snatches the spotlight in a deliciously absurd punk number that feels like part Johnny Rotten and part Disney villain. But the song that had Fantastic Fest audiences giggling and gushing was a “Santa Baby”-esque swooner, sung by Lisa at the pre-zombie attack talent show. Complete with shirtless teen boys hip-wiggling in santa-styled booty shorts, it’s a hilariously salacious song bursting at the seams with innuendo. With Marilyn Monroe-like playfulness, Siu coos into the microphone while stroking its stand, “Come on, Santa, give it to me.”

The script is packed with a winking wit and irreverent charm. In between attack scenes, the teens play “Shag, Marry, Kill” with zombified versions of beloved celebrities. McPhail adds visual gags with quirky cutaway reactions and violence that’s as goofy as it is gory. Make no mistake–these zombies might look ludicrous in their festive holiday attire, but with pale eyes, gaping, bloody maws, and soulless groans, they are satisfyingly scary.

Props to a cast that is outright sensational and absolutely game. Hunt gives us shades of a “Once More eith Feeling” Buffy Summers (but with a much better voice). One moment, she’s a smiling, singing ingenue, the next a blood-splattered survivor battling her way through zombies with a massive candy cane decoration. As her pining sidekick, Cumming is charming but tragically unhip. He achieves brilliance as he brazenly boogies through a graveyard, playing air keytar. Adding a spiky sarcasm, Swire is a live wire who notably also served as the film’s incredible choreographer! As almost sickeningly sweet lovers, Leveaux and Siu muster everything between silliness and genuine heart. Meanwhile, Wiggins brings a bit of brooding and the cocky sex appeal of a young Tim Curry.

With so much going on in this over-the-top and gleefully deranged genre explosion, some things do fall a bit short. Amid so many storylines, some threads get lost in the fray, while others overstay their welcome. As much fun as Kaye’s seething Headmaster is, extended attention to his arc gives the third act a bit of bloat. Though McPhail can craft a solid sight gag and a toe-tapping musical number, when it comes to action the geography gets muddy and the shots unfocused, sinking a few key moments.

Before the festival even started, attendees were buzzing about the ambitious Scottish film that was daring to be a teen comedy, a musical, a zombie horror movie, and a Christmas story all at once. It gets points for ambition right out the gate for its big, big swing. And while it stumbles a bit along the way, McPhail and an extraordinary team in front of and behind the camera crafted a film that feels at once fresh and familiar, insane yet grounded, gruesome yet winsome. It’s a whole lot of things, but above all else Anna and the Apocalypse is a totally bonkers and bloody good time.

4 out of 5 burritos. 

Kristy Puchko is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic. You can find more of her reviews here. Follow her on Twitter! 

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